Sometimes, it takes pointed criticism to spur necessary action. It’s one thing for a player to be berated by his manager over things such as lackadaisical play or a standoffish attitude, but it can truly sting to hear it from teammates, an indicator that his act has worn thin even within his peer group.
This was the case when Baltimore’s Luke Scott called out teammate Felix Pie early last season, the result of a nearly complete alienation of his teammates by Pie. Scott, reported the Baltimore Sun, “chastised (Pie’s) work ethic, assailed his character, questioned his discipline and labeled him a bad teammate.”
The meeting took place at the team’s indoor batting cage, and was necessary, according to Scott, because although Pie “was just this big ball of talent,” “there was no character, no discipline, no hard work, no dedication. There was laziness and an attitude that somebody owes him something.”
Pie began 2009 as Baltimore’s primary left fielder, but a .157 batting average in April, combined with inattentive mistakes in the field and on the basepaths, altered things in a hurry. Pie’s attitude was hindering his personal productivity, and it was costing his team chances at victory in multiple ways.
This is where the unwritten rules regarding team leadership come into play. “Challenge” meetings such as this, in which one or more players air out grievances about another, happen far more frequently than is reported (partly because the press doesn’t hear about most of them), and serve as one of the primary methods for quickly improving the tenor of a clubhouse.
In 1990, for example, a firestorm ripped through the roster of the San Diego Padres, when third baseman Mike Pagliarulo told a reporter for the New York Daily News that an unnamed teammate cared far more about his stats than team victories. “He doesn’t give a damn about this team,” he said, “and that’s weak.”
Although Pagliarulo later denied it, widespread speculation fingered Tony Gwynn as his target, and a clubhouse meeting was quickly called, in which Jack Clark and Gary Templeton joined in on ripping Gwynn (as well as pitcher Eric Show).
“Tempy said there were some things in the paper that he didn’t like, and he wanted to know where I was coming from,” said Gwynn in Sports Illustrated. “We started yelling back and forth. So Jack is sitting there with a Coke in his hands. He slams it across the room, it breaks open and shoots all over the place, and he says, ‘Hey, everyone in here knows why we’re having this meeting — because we got some selfish — — in this room, and they’re Eric Show and Tony Gwynn.’ Eric was shocked. I was shocked. . . .
“After that meeting I was lost. I spent many nights asking myself, ‘Is it me?’ In other people’s minds, maybe they were right in thinking some things I did were selfish. But face it, this is a selfish game. You get up to the plate, there’s no one to help you but yourself.”
Ultimately, said Gwynn, he devoted more effort to becoming a leader, and the team as a whole grew more focused. The Padres, 18-21 before the meeting, won six of their next seven games, and two weeks later were five games over .500.
The lesson being that if it can happen to Tony Gwynn, it can happen to anyone. And Felix Pie is no Tony Gwynn.
Scott concluded his 2009 intervention with a question, asking Pie if he really even wanted to be in the big leagues, and telling him that if he was unwilling to make the effort he should step aside in favor of someone who was.
“The whole time, his head was down,” said Scott. “Finally, he just said, ‘OK, I’ll work.’ ”
The result: Pie raised his 2009 average to .266, and on Aug. 25 of this year was batting .304, before a recent slump dropped it to .278. He’ll probably never be a superstar, but, thanks in part to Scott, at least he has a chance to reach his potential, whatever that may be.